May 13th, 2010
03:13 PM ET

Chasing Taliban’s overflowing coffers, cash couriers

Editor's note: This is part of series on terrorist finances included on the This Just In blog. Check out the entire Security Brief series 

With its columns and colonnades, the U.S. Treasury is one of the grandest buildings in Washington. But a handful of its staff are currently working in less salubrious surroundings. They’ve been dispatched to Kabul in an effort to stifle the Afghan Taliban’s cash-flow. Their mission: to detect money laundering schemes, investigate offshore accounts and cell-phone transfer, and try to rein in Afghanistan’s huge “informal” banking sector.

It is an uphill task. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates the Taliban’s revenues from illicit drugs alone last year at $150 million. U.N. sources say that insurgents (a wider definition than the Taliban) made between $450 and $600 million out of the opiate business between 2005 and 2008. But it may be much more. The U.N. estimates the “narco-profits” made in Afghanistan at $2.8 billion. A huge sum is unaccounted for.

The Taliban tax every stage of the process: the farmers, processors and distributors. Bringing in the poppy crop is so important that Taliban attacks fall during the harvest, as fighters trade their guns for scythes.

In 2009 the crop amounted to an estimated 7,700 tons. That makes a serious amount of heroin. Currently the preliminary forecast for this year is for a similar harvest -– from an area of 300,000 acres. (The island of Manhattan is about 20,000 acres, to give you a sense of just how huge the cultivated area is.) UN officials in Kabul say that’s not encouraging -– as it may compound the oversupply of heroin relative to global demand.

Estimating this year’s crop is complicated by a mysterious blight known as the “poppy plague” which has affected many fields in Helmand province. But even if poppy plague reduces the crop, UN officials note that huge amounts of opium are in storage.

“Opium can be kept for many years, is easy to transport and the seeds can be taken if you are displaced,” one UN official in Kabul says. There’s concern that some of the opium in store will be released onto the market this year to benefit from an “irrational high in opium prices,” the official adds.

Some Taliban have branched out into extortion and kidnapping, shaking down trucking companies that resupply NATO, for example. And they don’t put the money in a checking account.

Financial dealings in Afghanistan are dominated by informal networks known as hawala, which may account for 80 percent of transactions. Essentially, a client who owes money to someone in another city or country gives cash to a hawaladeer who takes a commission and instructs a fellow broker elsewhere to pay out the cash. While the hawaladeer may use bank accounts to manage the transfers, their clients don’t. There is therefore no paper trail.

Treasury officials admit that closing down the hawala down is not an option. So the U.S. approach is to try to coax the hawaladeer into the regulated system and license them. Not that the Taliban will roll over and allow that to happen. They rely on the hawala to launder the “taxes” they levy on the drug trafficking process.

After years spent focusing on disrupting al Qaeda’s finances, U.S. Assistant Treasury Secretary David Cohen wants to bring the same focus and techniques to tackling the Afghan Taliban. Cohen leads the Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. He is encouraged by cooperation of other governments, especially in the Gulf, who are beginning to see the Afghan Taliban in the same light as al Qaeda. In the United Arab Emirates six men – five Emiratis and one Afghan – have gone to jail after being convicted last month of trying to funnel money to the Taliban.

One U.S. official says the U.S. is now helping Gulf governments to identify and chase down the “cash couriers” – people who literally carry bundles of hard cash to and from al Qaeda, the Taliban and other groups, outside the banking system.

But crucially Pakistan – on the frontline in the battle with militant groups – is one of eight countries that has shown “strategic deficiencies in alleged money laundering and terrorism financing.”

That was the conclusion earlier this year of the Financial Action Task Force, an inter-governmental body aimed at countering illicit financial transactions. Pakistan’s legislature recently passed an anti money-laundering bill to try to tighten regulation of the financial sector, but financial analysts says its implementation in a country where informal financial transactions thrive will be a challenge.

For now the Taliban appear to have plenty of cash with which to buy weapons and other hardware, and to pay fighters. Some analysts say the US strategy of abandoning some outlying bases in remote areas close to the border with Pakistan may make the insurgents’ exploitation of the opium trade easier.

And in his analysis last year, General Stanley McChrystal said that even without the drugs trade, the Taliban and other groups would have income from levying taxes and fees at checkpoints and among villagers under their control, as well as from kidnapping and foreign donors.

“Eliminating insurgent access to narco-profits,” he wrote, “even if possible and while disruptive – would not destroy their ability to operate so long as other funding sources remained intact.”

Other analysts agree with McChrystal’s assessment. They don’t expect the Taliban’s coffers to be emptied in short order. Those Treasury officials laboring in Kabul and Washington have plenty of work ahead of them.

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